More often than not, Jiang Cheng tortures himself with memories about his childhood.
It’s a hopeless thing to do, one of his closest advisors would even describe it as ‘self-sabotage’, but the tricky habit was a silly pleasure of his, and anyone who thinks the contrary should learn how to mind their own business.
These flashbacks are the only proofs that he was part of happier days before it all went to waste, and Jiang Cheng wanted something to keep him going despite his increasing obligations as sect leader.
As a child, he was proud of his upbringing.
Lotus Pier didn’t share the extravagance others sect residences had, but genuine simplicity could always charm the pickiest of souls. The endless noise of marchands walking down the streets, and children shouting as they played games, was indeed comforting.
It typically smelled of wine, spice, soup, and sweat, to the point you could almost taste it on your tongue, and he loved it. He loved spending afternoons swimming in cold waters, trying to catch fishes with bare hands only for them to slip away and escape.
If the turbulence became too unbearable, he could walk away and get lost in the forest nearby to silently enjoy walks amongst nature and the wilderness, until somebody forced him to wake up and go back to real life.
Most importantly, Jiang Cheng had a home full of people he loved. A home full of people to come back to.
There were downsides, of course.
Growing up too aware of his father’s favoritism towards his adopted older brother had done him no good neither in short or long term. The lack of recognition from the one that was supposed to love him did become a sore spot that would eventually follow him into adulthood, but Jiang Cheng liked to believe time had passed and he wasn’t a child anymore.
If anything, he thought raising his nephew almost entirely on his own had blessed him with a brand new perception.
After his dajie died, Jiang Wanyin had to become mother, father, uncle and guardian of a little chubby boy. He had to learn how to clean diapers, feed him, sing lullabies because baby Jin Ling was high-maintenance and wouldn’t tolerate any nannies putting him to sleep.
He had to nurse a sick little Jin Ling, the most terrifying mutation if you’d ask him, who unfortunately would catch a cold all the goddamn time. You see, the boy liked to swim by the river a bit too much, and his uncle had no heart to deprive him of joys.
Jin Ling looked happy when he played outside. Jiang Cheng liked that.
And maybe he had raised a spoiled little brat, but the sect weighting on his shoulders was enough of a payback.
There was so much to do and so little time.
Children are so terrifying.
Jiang Cheng also knew he wasn’t anywhere close of doing a perfect job at loving Jin Ling.
His nephew had delicate insides, and deserved to be loved with qualities Jiang Wanyin hadn’t exactly developed along the way.
He wanted to treat Jin Ling in the ways the boy deserved, but this was another missed opportunity.
Jiang Cheng would rather die than admitting out loud how frustrated he felt about it. His best intentions would easily go south. His nephew needed kind words, and Jiang Cheng had none to offer. He hoped to get it right soon, because just the thought of giving up and making Jin Ling scarred left a sour taste in his mouth.
He wasn’t kind, he wasn’t gentle but he was there. The only one who could be there.
There were many failures (and accomplishments!), and Jiang Cheng loved Jin Ling through all of them. He cared for him, he wanted nothing more than to watch him thrive. He’d fight anyone to assure his nephew’s security.
He’d give up his own heartbeat to assure Jin Ling would keep his steady in a blink of an eye and no questions asked.
By loving so fiercely, Jiang Cheng came to the conclusion that this must have been what his parents felt. Maybe they also didn’t know how to say things and decided to act quietly instead, or else… They just loved in outbursts of anger and harshness.
Who was he to judge? They were dead now anyway, each accusation would be left unanswered. Besides, he hadn’t done any better.
Yeah, his parents had done as much as they could have.
If he thought about it for long enough, Jiang Cheng remembered the times he’d catch his father gazing at him with that something in his eyes. That thing was hard of recognizing back then. A child thinks like a child, and can’t navigate certain waters alone. Now, he does.
Definitely not the perfect kind, the ideal kind, but he’d take it and call it a day.
Jiang Cheng became, besides all the above, a leader in his thirties who successfully managed to rebuild an entire sect from the ground up. Grey ashes turned into buildings half as glorious as they once were thanks to his command. This achievement comforted him if any doubt resurfaced because if his father didn’t love him then, he’d certainly allow himself to now.
Maybe he’d have more of his mother’s scattered gentleness.
It was silly, but little things could make a young Jiang Cheng feel quite miserable. The mention of his dogs for once, not understanding how to play a game, or evil talks about the ones he cared for. When it happened, Madam Yu would bring him close in her embrace and scold him until he’d smile again.
If only they knew how far he had come.
Jiang Cheng quickly noticed how the earth kept spinning in spite of his obvious endless grieving state. People would laugh at him if he were to confess, but for so long he could hardly believe it would.
Lastly, nourishing these thoughts was also an opportunity to keep in mind something Jiang Cheng couldn’t allow himself to forget: he ended up losing his da shixiong in each possible sense of the word.
Jiang Cheng was aware deep in his heart that there was a time before, when Wei Wuxian had been his strongest ally, and a time after, when the Yiling Patriarch turned his back on those he swore to stand by.
Still, his da shixiong was a complicated subject to dive in and address.
In the eyes of Jiang Wanyin, their relationship had been broken far too much and the thought of a reconciliation was unacceptable, but bringing back old memories awakened up Jiang Cheng, and this part of him was absolutely miserable.
It hoped that Wei Ying would find him somewhere in between.
Attempt the impossible, it said. This time, for us.
Jiang Cheng really missed the warmth of his luxurious room at Carp Towers now that he had to sit back and tolerate wet snowflakes falling all over his purple velvet cape.
It would be a failure to turn back now, he had left hours ago to follow his nephew in another one of his stupid adventures, and the chances for the skies to stop pouring down frozen deluge on them were very close to none.
”Jiujiu, I cannot stress this enough but you don’t really need to follow us around,” Jin Ling repeated for what seemed to be the third or fourth time since they passed the gates.
The younger’s tiny nose and cheekbones were colored in a pinkish tone, and Jiang Cheng had to mentally stop himself from cooing at the sight, “I appreciate the gesture, but I swear I won’t die in a simple hunt.”
His entire body straightened as Jin Ling spoke. This was why Jiang Cheng insisted on coming in the first place, because he knew he had raised an ungrateful brat!
“Besides, Wei Wuxian will keep us company this time. Actually, he always tries to, but you already know that. And I believe he is fully capable of doing so,” Jin Ling added matter of factly, completely unaware of his uncle’s reaction. Jiang Cheng sighed heavily, eyes rolling to the back of his head.
Everything seemed to be about Wei Wuxian these days.
Wei Wuxian is this, and Wei Wuxian did that, and he taught this and fought that.
To be honest, Jiang Cheng didn’t believe Wei Wuxian would ever let Jin Ling get hurt. At least, not purposefully. The boy was his nephew too, wasn’t he?
But Jiang Cheng worried, a terrible tendency if you’d ask him, which only worsened after what happened at Guanyin Temple. Most days he’d fight the desperate feeling of something will go wrong if I am not there because danger was what they signed for as cultivators, and more often than he’d like to admit, his worries pushed him to act on it.
What if Jin Ling impulsiveness got the best of him?
What if Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi weren’t enough to keep everyone breathing?
What if Wei Wuxian lost it again?
Jiang Cheng also couldn’t shake the feeling of outrage deep in his guts. Wei Wuxian had been dead a while ago, gone for almost two decades until he wasn’t.
Now that he is as alive as one can be after reincarnating into somebody else’s body, and his name is somehow less repulsive to the ear than it was before, Wei Wuxian was allowed to mentor the juniors during night-hunts. And Hanguang-jun’s official cultivation partner, let’s not leave that out.
Had someone told him this would become reality, Jiang Cheng is a hundred percent sure he’d share a chuckle.
Him of all people!
Jin Ling walked with heavy steps, arms crossed against his puffy chest. It automatically made Jiang Cheng think of Jin Zixuan. The boy was his father’s perfect copy indeed!
He feels cold, Jiang Cheng noticed as Jin Ling shuddered. The temperature affected the younger more than he allowed himself to show.
Jiang Cheng sneaked another glance towards his nephew, and realized he’d been hugging himself to fight the cold temperature. He thought of giving Jin Ling his own cape, but was stopped once again by a high pitched remark, “And I am pretty sure as a sect leader there are greater obligations you need to attend to!”
Incredulous, the sect leader inhaled and exhaled several times, trying to fight off his worst instincts to just slap the boy’s head. He took his cape off, flinching slightly as the chilly breeze passed.
Jin Ling gasped in pure confusion, eyes turning round with astonishment as his uncle carefully put the heavy, warm fabric around him, “I bet you do, you’re one of them, and yet here we are,” Jiang Cheng replied ironically, mouth twisting downwards.
His nephew snuggled against the cape, and only then Jiang Cheng felt entirely satisfied, “Shut your big mouth and keep walking before I break your legs!”
The younger huffed a strangled ‘thank you’, and simply obliged.
They were headed towards Caiyi Town in Gusu region, where supposedly the other juniors would meet the two of them ‘at a Hunan restaurant whose spicy food Wei Wuxian adores’, before heading to solve the case
Visiting the waterfront town made Jiang Cheng quite nostalgic, a feeling he personally despised. At some point, he silently wondered if Wei Wuxian suffered with glimpses of reminiscence too, or if he was the only one to be tortured by their past.
Circumstances didn’t help, and the reason why villagers urged Lan cultivators to come to the region was quite similar to what had happened back in the days of Jiang Cheng’s youth: apparently, a recent plague of water ghouls haunted the river, and none of the townspeople recalled any recent drownings.
There was no way this letter could have been saying the truth. Drownings these days were not only rare, but nearly impossible. Winter hit stronger this year than it had ever before, and because of that most rivers and lakes began to froze, water turning too cold to accomplish any fishing activities.
Nobody would even dare try to swim in the river, and maybe a water ghoul could have been hiding deeper in the river without any of the villagers noticing it, but it would have been a minor issue, easily solved by any other cultivator available, and there was always one.
However, the letter had insisted on the idea of it being a plague, and not an isolated case. It seemed, by the sound of it, as if Caiyi faced an urgent matter.
Whoever wrote the message was careful enough to require Wei Wuxian’s presence, which think of it, it wasn’t exactly uncommon these days, after all he understood demonic cultivation the most.
It still felt strange that the villagers would exaggerate over something like that. Such behaviour never happened before, specially not within Gusu Lan territory, and Jiang Cheng had a weird feeling about it.
Jin Ling was often invited to fight alongside with the Lan disciples. Wei Wuxian seemed to prefer the most unusual cases, and Jiang Cheng supposed his nephew secretly adored that about him. Caiyi Town is a lot closer to the Cloud Recesses than it is to Carp Towers, and yet the younger accepted to come excitedly.
He wouldn’t judge Jin Ling whatsoever, life was boring.
Life as a sect leader, more specifically, was painfully boring. Jin Ling was still too young to stick to four walls, a handful of documentations and the tricky administration of his sect. He needed to expand his horizons, Jiang Cheng somehow knew about that, and if Wei Wuxian provided the entertainment, he couldn’t exactly whine over it.
Soon enough, they reached Caiyi Town. Jiang Cheng could easily recognize it by the few houses with white walls and grey roofs, fitting of the Gusu Lan sect aesthetic. There were a few people walking down the streets, and Jiang Cheng got a few curious stares sent his way as he walked by.
A sort of uneasiness hanged open in the air, which only grew sharper and stronger along their way to the restaurant. Jiang Cheng couldn’t trace exactly what it was at first, but as he blinked furiously to prevent the snowflakes from getting in his eyes, he understood why he’d felt so bothered:
Curiosity can be poisonous.
If they all logically assumed, probably rightfully so, that the villagers had been lying, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered to come at all. Jiang Cheng wasn’t the brightest at reading into things, but he’d felt it from the start how this shouldn’t be happening.
Instantly, it dawned on him that maybe his initial intuition could have been absolutely correct, and it screamed that this was a set up specially built to bring them all to Caiyi.
“I came here last year to meet my friends,” Jin Ling commented, eyes darting towards the houses and the layers of white snow covering the streets, “It was fun back then, because we visited during spring. The people here are welcoming, don’t you think?”
“They are,” Jiang Cheng agreed, “What did the letter say again?”
Jin Ling looked down, clearly concerned about this situation, “They said there was a plague of water ghouls in the river.”
“That is nonsense,” Jiang Cheng acknowledged, “I don’t think there are any water ghouls here. You can’t swim in a time like this.”
“And if you nobody swims, nobody drowns,” Jin Ling completed, slowly understanding what his uncle was thinking, “Perhaps there’s something else?”
“Like what?” Jiang Cheng asked, tone a bit harsher than he intended to, “A ghost? Even commoners know how to make a difference between a water ghoul and a ghost. These are two very different creatures, one is usually in the water to begin with.”
Jin Ling flinched but persisted, “I meant that maybe they needed us for something else. They could’ve assumed that nobody would show up if the matter wasn’t urgent, specially because it’s snowing so much, you know? A lot of cultivators refuse to travel in these conditions.”
Jiang Cheng made a dubious sound and stepped closer to his nephew, too aware of his surroundings, “Lan disciples under Hanguang-Jun ruling are not exactly the type to ignore any calling, now are they?”
“It could also be a simple prank,” Jin Ling added. “I’m just saying this because you’re doing that thing with your eyebrows when you’re thinking too much, and that is never a good sign.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t bother to reply, and only fastened his steps. Jin Ling hushed, trying to follow his rhythm.
“Jiujiu, stop!” he reached for Jiang Cheng’s robes, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, alright? N-Not everything has to be a plot. We’ll sleep in our beds tonight, or at Cloud Recesses if it’s too late, but we’ll be just fine. You’re here, aren’t you?”
And moments like this probably hit Jiang Cheng the hardest. His nephew was such a terrific kid, growing into an admirable cultivator and sect leader. Way more thoughtful and perceptive than Jiang Cheng was at his age.
Watching someone else grow into who they were always supposed to be is bittersweet. He still considered Jin Ling as the same young boy he once got to hold in his arms, trying desperately to soothe his nightmares.
Back then, Jin Ling could barely sleep alone without wetting his entire bed.
His sister would have been so proud, and she didn’t get to see any of it.
She wasn’t there to calm the boy, and she wouldn’t be here right now to watch him stand proudly and fight water ghouls, evil spirits, whatever tried to harm these people he didn’t even know a single thing about, and still cared enough to show up.
Because this wasn’t only about avoiding his obligations as a sect leader and meeting his friends. Jin Ling took his cultivation seriously. He’d probably rank in the top three of his generation.
Does Jin Ling know his father would have thrown the party of the century to celebrate his achievements?
After a while, Jin Ling murmured thoughtfully, “We’re all here now, it’s gonna be alright.”
Jiang Cheng truly hoped so.
They stepped inside the restaurant, only to find a Wei Wuxian drinking his spicy soup with enthusiasm. The infamous Yiling Patriarch recognized the two of them as soon as they walked in, and seemed only a bit surprised at the sight of his brother standing next to the Lanling Jin sect leader.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes as his brother waved at them excitedly.
Had Wei Ying been expecting him to show up?
After his sister’s death and everything that followed, Jiang Cheng hardly allowed himself to imagine what would it be like to see Wei Wuxian smiling at him ever again. He’d been curious about it and wondered a few times, but it seemed to be wishful thinking.
He never dreamed that the universe would grant him to feel the pure exasperation only a Wei Wuxian could provoke. Maybe he wasn’t so unlucky.
Wei Wuxian was completely, utterly, intolerable when he smiled.
A sense of relief settled in Jiang Cheng’s chest, and he mentally forced himself not to dwell on that while still confirming that Wei Wuxian was alive.
He approached their table, and only then he noticed just how much Wei Wuxian seemed nervous.
After Wei Ning revealed the truth about his brother’s sacrifice, something changed between their dynamics. Suddenly, Wei Wuxian seemed exposed and vulnerable, and some part of Jiang Cheng knew the truth had the same effect on him.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t hide anything anymore, he was an open book Jiang Cheng avoided reading religiously. But as the Yiling Patriarch stepped closer to Lan Sizhui and his pristine white pretentious robes, holding the fabric until his knuckles turned white with the effort, Jiang Cheng felt dejected.
Expecting Jiang Cheng to show up did not mean Wei Wuxian was thrilled to know it would happen.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui bowed politely.
Jiang Cheng knew this was all forced reference. Lan Sizhui’s face had been neutral enough to not show any emotion that could lead him to be reprimanded, but the boy was still a beginner at the arts of despising his elders: arms too stiff, eyes too serious, lips too pressed into a fine line.
“It is a surprise to see that you have decided to join us today.”
Jiang Cheng almost rolled his eyes at that too. Almost.
Lan people should stop trying to convince others of things they don’t believe in , he reflected.
“Lan Sizhui,” Jiang Cheng raised a hand, to stop everyone else from following with false pretences too, “Caught your friend here reading the letter out loud,” he offered instead, as if this would be enough to justify his presence. Jiang Cheng truly didn’t mind if it didn’t, “No Ouyang Zizhen this time?”
Lan Jingyi glared at Jin Ling who only made a noise filled with annoyance in return and rushed stand by his friends’ sides, “Ouyang Zizhen got caught up, as a future sect leader, he has responsibilities of his own,” the Lan informed.
At least Jiang Cheng could always count on Lan Jingyi to be sincere about his lack of appreciation, or even respect, towards him. He strongly sensed that the boy had been swallowing a snappy comment since he walked in, choosing to act unaffected instead.
His efforts were anything but successful, and as Lan Jingyi purposefully stood between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng himself, the Jiang decided that that’s when it becomes too obvious and strained.
“Ay, w-we should go, right?” Wei Wuxian finally exclaimed, still grinning but eyes locked where Zidian rested wrapped on Jiang Cheng’s finger. How frightened his brother was stinged, but there was little that could be done about it now, “Jiang Wanyin probably can’t stay here for too long, and as long as we start early, we’ll finish early!”
Jiang Cheng didn’t care if solving the case took too long, if there ever was one. He wasn’t exactly planning on returning to Lotus Pier anytime soon anyway. But dear Lord, how could he explain himself when his brother walked on eggshells around him like he was about to be attacked?
The sect leader opened his mouth to protest and no words came out.
He never wanted Wei Ying to be the stranger whose laugh he’d recognize anywhere.
Jiang Cheng was here because he worried. He worried because he cared. He cared because he loved. Of course, he did. He loved people just as much as he pretended to hate them, and to him these feelings were basically always intertwined to a fault, but still.
Instantaneously, Jiang Cheng felt numb and regretted showing up. This had been a terrible idea, and he should have stayed in Carp Towers. Scratch that, he shouldn’t have left Lotus Pier to begin with.
He breathed in and out, and felt his hand start to shake.
“As always, you’re absolutely correct,” Jiang Cheng snapped and shouted sarcastically. He dropped money over the table, paying for the meal he didn’t share and forcefully steadied himself, nails painfully digging crescent form in his palm
He could never be good at any of this, there was only so much his heart could take before getting caught up in old habits.
Jiejie would’ve known I cared, he contemplated, because she always did. She was good amazingly good at understanding what Jiang Cheng meant when he said something as false as what he had just claimed.
“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling immediately tried to intervene, still holding unto the purple cap fiercely. He wasn’t a genius, yet he knew that another little miscommunication had fallen between his two uncles.
“I am here to keep you from making any stupid mistakes that would cost us all, as it usually does, am I not?”
Lan Jingyi gasped, clearly infuriated by his words, Lan Sizhui closed his eyes as if a migraine was slowly settling, pulsing in his head, and Jin Ling gave up whatever amazing intervention he had thought about seconds ago.
Wei Wuxian’s smile slowly faltered after that.
“Pay attention to where you’re stepping,” Wei Wuxian warned, eyes focused on the thin layer of ice below his feet, “We don’t need any injuries right now.”
Lan Jingyi, who stood a few steps away from his friends, questioned “Are you sure there are any water ghouls? I mean, clearly nobody drowned here lately,” he poked the ice with his sword a few times, and Lan Sizhui frowned at him disapprovingly.
The group had left the restaurant half an hour ago, and maybe walking all together in fancy clothing and holding swords brought some attention, because they’d been approached by one of the villagers soon after.
The man was of average size, neither too small or too tall, and his traits were common, plain-looking. He wore black robes, and his hair was brushed in a high ponytail, decorated with a simple red ribbon.
Jiang Cheng observed his semblance apprehensively, and couldn’t avoid comparing the way this stranger dressed to Wei Wuxian. When walking side-to-side they looked like a perfect copy of each other, literal twins. Still, he followed each of the man’s indications towards the river, despite the inquietude stuck in the pits of his stomach.
At least the guy was willing to show them around.
“There aren’t,” Wei Wuxian answered, turning on his heels to face his brother, “Come on, we all know there aren’t. Water Ghouls are resentful corpses. Nobody drowned here. Nobody died in these waters.”
Their eyes locked, and Jiang Cheng felt weak as regret washed all over him.
I didn’t mean what I said back in the restaurant.
Standing there, surrounded by thin ice ready to surrender to their weight, the sect leader felt the instinct once again, as a voice whispering in his ears, urging Jiang Cheng to take everybody home.
“I apologize for my straight-forwardness, but I believe my master is right,” Lan Sizhui approached the villager, who just stood there in silence, unmoving, “As you can see since we arrived here in Caiyi Town, there hasn’t been any issues to solve.”
Jin Ling followed, clearly irritated, “You wrote us a letter saying this was an urgent matter, we came, and there’s nothing. Why did your people write in the first place? Do you think it’s funny to bother cultivators with silly jokes?” the boy sighed, “the Lan sect is sensible to each demand, and you making them travel in a time like this for nothing is extremely disrespectful.”
The man didn’t respond, and Jiang Cheng was getting seriously frustrated. He unleashed Zidian hastily, and as he prepared himself to snap at the villager and force him to provide any explanations, a cracking loud noise began.
Wei Wuxian’s breath hitched, and he immediately looked down, “No!” he yelled, and the ice moved up and down, breaking as if something knocked it several times from the deep waters bellow trying to reach the surface.
Jiang Cheng stopped his movements, but stepped further towards Wei Wuxian. He directed his gaze towards the villager, who now smirked viciously. Jiang Cheng felt nauseous as the guy opened his mouth, knowing he wouldn’t like whatever came out of it, “This is the final sacrifice, for your honour only.”
What happened next couldn’t have been prevented.
The villager seized a trailing point blade from his front pocket and forced the metal pointedly against his heart. He fell on his knees, coughing pure, red blood, whilst making an enormous effort to face Wei Wuxian. His smile made Jiang Cheng shiver. His face showed no signs of hesitation or pain. Not even regret, just delight.
He died with the look of a maniac, as if he’d been waiting his entire life for this very moment and time. Tears pierced through his skin, and blood that purged out of his injuries tainted the white, immaculate snow.
The cracking noises became stronger, and the ice parted. Jiang Cheng felt it again, but it was now crystal clear: the uneasiness, the terrifying instincts. As the villager gave out his last breath, something dark exhaled from him.
The sect leader quickly tried to remember when he first felt something similar, and in the midst of adrenaline, all he could link back was the feeling he’d felt when standing next to Jin Ling, right after they reached Caiyi Town.
He was now aware that he could trace the resentful energy since then, and mentally cursed himself for not identifying it more clearly sooner.
“Everybody,” Wei Wuxian warned, and the water slowly began to rise, “Run!”
The juniors quickly made their ways towards Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, and together the five of them prepared themselves to leave this perimeter and rejoin the village. They needed to be standing of safe ground to decide what to do next.
Jiang Cheng looked back and realized how much the water looked alive . Now that the ice had been pierced, a dark whirlpool slowly began to make appearance, destroying the solid white foundation.
But how? There weren’t any frequent drownings in this area lately. Hell, even the man who just died had killed himself with a blade!
The skies slowly drifted to a greyish tone, and thunders and lightnings followed.
Jiang Cheng ran, making sure that the juniors were a few steps ahead of him, aware of Wei Wuxian’s hand safely placed behind his back. Together they all reached the ground, and only then Jiang Cheng allowed himself to breathe, “I-Is this a Waterborne Abyss?” he asked.
“Looks like one,” Wei Wuxian replied, “Whoever made this happen was keeping it docile with human sacrifices.”
“It doesn’t look docile to me now,” Lan Jingyi complained, and pointed towards the river, “See?”
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes as Jin Ling let out a scream. Water splashed everywhere, the trees around were swallowed towards the center of the waterborne.
They couldn’t repress it, it was too late. The right thing to do now was to send a signal that would help them reach more cultivators and quickly start to drain the water out.
“So, this is what it takes to make the Yiling Patriarch show up.”
Jiang Cheng averted his gaze from the Waterborne Abyss, and pulled Jin Ling towards himself protectively. There was a group of thirty people, all dressed in the same way that villager did, standing right in front of them.
One of them pointed his sword towards Wei Wuxian, “We’ve been waiting for you for such a long time.”
Jiang Cheng frowned. What was he talking about?
“Yiling Patriarch, receive our sacrifices and recognize our efforts. This was all because of you, and we have now honoured your legacy.”
Wei Wuxian’s head turned to the side, and he pointed Chenqing toward the group, “Who are you people?” there was a hint of a amusement in his voice, “You make sacrifices in my name, honour my legacy, but I don’t even know you.”
Another person stepped forward, deciding to rise to the occasion, “We are a group of rogue cultivators, and we’ve dedicated our lives towards what you have preached. We have followed every advice, and awaited for your return.”
Jiang Cheng’s head spinned, if he stood any longer he’d have a heart attack.
“We have sacrificed other rogue cultivators and commoners, who refused to accept our community, and the weakest members have given their last breath for the greater cause willingly. Everything was settled for you to rise. Join us, you have now the opportunity to follow the path you’ve created yourself in the past.”
“Yes! You don’t need to be backed up by these sects,” said another one, punctuating each word with disdain, “Create your own, and show them how things are supposed to be.”
A beat followed. Jiang Cheng was about to lose his mind.
“How things are supposed to be?” Wei Wuxian repeated, and Jiang Cheng froze, “Can you even grasp what ‘how things are supposed to be’ means?”
The first person to speak retraced his steps. He fell on top of one of his colleagues, but still exclaimed proudly, “Wei Wuxian!”
The Juniors disciples grabbed their swords, positioning themselves near Jiang Cheng ready to attack, waiting for a single sign of approval to start. Wei Wuxian blinked darkly, and paced silently until he was standing in between the two opposing groups.
“Oh no,” he chanted, eyes tracing each person. Wuxian uttered a laugh before admitting, “I don’t appreciate going by that title anymore, you know? But you’ve all taken so much liking and I don’t want your dedication to go to waste.”
What if Wei Wuxian lost it again?
“You are not qualified to talk to me,” he added, “And you are not qualified to speak on my name. I am the Yiling Patriarch to you, am I not?” he turned over himself, and soon after Chenqing was brought to his lips, “Kneel!”
“Sect leader Jiang,” Lan Sizhui called, eyes anxious and face drifting pale.
Jiang Cheng’s blood was running cold, “Somebody has to stop this, send a signal,” Jiang Cheng decided, and Lan Sizhui ran to a clear zone, followed by his friends, and immediately began to do as he was told.
Jiang Cheng felt as if they were running out of time. The scene happening in front of him was not good.
The group of people had dispersed in different directions, all trying to attack Wei Wuxian by using his own techniques against him. Jiang Cheng used Zidian to attack some, and make them step aside. Wei Wuxian played the flute, a specific sound that made the Yunmeng Jiang sect leader feel especially nervous.
Around them appeared a handful of corpses, probably under Wei Wuxian’s spell. After a few minutes battling, Jiang Cheng assumed this would soon be over. This group of people were outnumbered after all, between his brother ministrations and his own abilities with Zidian.
Because as soon as the idea of it being over crossed his mind, one of the rogue cultivators stood proudly and brought to his lips a red flute. He began playing timidly at first, but growing confidence with each passing second. It seemed that a battle of who would be the strongest had started, and the poisoned corpses were suddenly confused as to whom they should attack.
Wei Wuxian increased his efforts, refusing to lose in the face of a farce, but this rogue cultivator seemed to know what he was doing.
Jiang Cheng shouldn’t have left Carp Tower today.
And maybe this was all terrible timing. Maybe every detail was laddered perfectly for it to end this way because time hated the two of them. He didn’t know, and he honestly didn’t want to keep lamenting.
As the Yiling Patriarch was distracted by playing his flute, and the juniors were distracted by sending the signal for Hanguang-Jun to know that something was wrong, one of their opponents stood up again. He stood up, picked up his sword and walked over towards the one he was supposed to adore, aiming this time to hurt and to kill.
The rogue cultivator elevated his arm while still making heavy, slobby steps towards Wei Wuxian, and the light of the sky reflected on the sword, making Jiang Cheng momentanly blindfolded, until his body moved on his own.
What a beautiful thing, he thought. And what a beautiful thing, indeed.
Living as Jiang Cheng was a constant repetition of terrible nightmares. Sometimes, he’d wake up scared of his own shadow, because even this could turn against him to cause him harm.
He ran furiously, heart beating against his chest. The taste of salt in his mouth, the one he grew used to, because Jiang Cheng had cried so much for the ones that got away.
He cried for his parents once, while running away from a destroyed Lotus Pier in the hands of the Wen sect.
He cried when his golden core was poked, tortured and taken away from him by force, in exchange of keeping what those he had left safe.
He cried when his jiejie left this earth, the ultimate drop before he’d lost it.
He cried for Wei Wuxian, too.
There’s nothing comforting about crying when you’re alone, and Jiang Cheng was tired of being the one left to cry.
So he ran as fast as he could, acting purely on the feeling of urgency that had kept him on edge since the beginning of it all, forgetting about Zidian and all these techniques he worked so hard to improve on after his brother lost control. Jiang Cheng ran and pushed Wei Wuxian away before the sword could reach a single one of his hair.
He gave this one shot it all, and watched as his brother’ slowly went from very irritated to extremely confused, and then his face translated a look of reminiscence and shock.
The magnitude of Jiang Cheng repeating the same motion his sister once had all these years ago. The sword only by a few centimeters not touching his heart, yet still digging deep in his body, cutting in half muscles, veines and opening a wound that perhaps would never have the time to heal.
Around them the world stopped but snowflakes kept falling. They danced delicately, getting farther away from each other in the air until they reached the white ground.
It hadn’t snowed when Jiang Yanli died. Back then, it felt warm and dry.
A single tear fell on Wei Wuxian’s cheekbone, and Jiang Cheng gently smiled before his eyes closed and he mouthed, “I missed you.”
For once, he felt at peace.
Winter had ravaged the cultivation world, showing no mercy to the rich nor the poor, and as naturally as it claimed itself as king, it left its throne to Spring.
“Lan Zhan, what if he never wakes up? ”
Wei Wuxian felt restless, amongst many other things.
After the disaster at Caiyi Town, Lan Zhan rushed back to the Cloud Recesses carrying in his arms an unconscious and deeply injured Jiang Cheng. The man had nearly died, and his condition was extremely delicate. A week later and there were no signs of improvement whatsoever.
Wei Wuxian wanted to die.
If the love of his life hadn’t been present each step of the way to remind him that his brother was still alive, that there was a chance of recovery because his heartbeat still pulsed, even if very weakly, Wei Wuxian believes he would’ve completely lost control again.
“He will,” Lan Wangji answered simply, “Jiang Wanyin is strong, he will recover.”
Wei Wuxian accepted the response, only because he had no strength to fight against people anymore. They didn’t see the look on Jiang Cheng’s face after the rogue cultivator had blown the hit. The same hit that aimed Wei Wuxian’s heart, the one that was supposed to end it all for him, so how could they understand?
In that specific moment, Jiang Cheng looked exactly like shijie.
His brother’s last words repeated itself non-stop since that day.
I missed you.
This made Wei Wuxian feel so tired and angry now that the snow was melting.
How could Jiang Cheng wait until the last moment to reveal something so important? Why wasn’t he honest back when Jin Guangyao died?
Because he felt angry then, maybe rightfully so.
“I shouldn’t have pushed you to stay here in Cloud Recesses that day. Bad things happen when the two of us are not together,” Wei Wuxian admitted, careful not to speak too loudly. Lan Wangji looked down and continued playing Rest in his guqin, “He wasn’t angry when it hit him, you know? I think this was the first time since—,” he paused, “It can’t be the last.”
Lan Wangji nodded in understanding, and decided to put more dedication into this melody. Each note could be a translation of patience and utmost devotion, because for once, he also worried about Jiang Cheng, and wanted nothing more than for him to wake up.
Jiang Cheng opened his eyes and frowned, mind too slow to function. His body was surrounded by comfortable, warm white sheets. He allowed himself to close his eyes again, definitely not ready to wake up.
Where was he?
“A-Cheng,” a voice called him, and he pouted. Needless to say it wasn’t impressed, because it soon tried again, Come on, A-Cheng, wake up! ”
Jiang Cheng opened his eyes abruptly. Too much light.
“You haven’t changed all these years now, have you?” she asked amusedly.
Jiang Cheng noted the voice was of a woman, sweet and kind.
It sounded nice, he wanted to hear more.
Thankfully, she followed, “I worry about you, A-Cheng. It’s been a long time, and you’re still so angry, I fear you’ll suffer with qi deviation,” there was a pause. The voice was so familiar. Jiang Cheng decided he didn’t like it.
“Your ajie is tired of watching the ones she loves so far away from each other.”
He opened his eyes slowly. His eyes stinged and Jiang Cheng tried to blink the wetness, because he couldn’t see her face and he wanted to. He desperately needed to.
“Shh!” she soothed him, wiping the tears with her hands, touch soft and loving. Jiang Cheng only sobbed harder. At this point, he lost any control over his body, shaking, shivering, curving on himself, a loud painful sound emanating from his insides, “It’s okay now, everything is alright. You’re here, aren’t you?”
Jiang Cheng thought he’d heard that one before. He gasped for air, feeling so tortured, “I-I h-have to go back!”
Jiang Yanli smiled softly, “I know,” she acknowledged, “Don’t you want to go back, A-Cheng?”
He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t deny that his nephew still needed him, and his sect was left without an heir or a specific second in command. He couldn’t deny that many people had died, and being another one to leave so early would be selfish of him.
But Jiang Cheng missed her too, and he didn’t want to go back.
“He needs you too, you know he does,” she added, as if guessing her brother’s thoughts, “We can’t leave A-Ying alone.”
Jiang Cheng laughed, with no humor at all, “H-He has enough people around!”
“None of them know him in the way we do,” Jiang Yanli corrected him, with perseverance, “None of them know him in the way you do. Only you know him like I do, A-Cheng. And he knows you like I do too.”
Carefully enough, she kissed his forehead. His entire face burned, and his eyelids became heavier, but Jiang Cheng didn’t want to sleep.
“The three of us have to stay together forever, A-Cheng,” she promised, “Only he loves you like I do. Only you love him like I do. Don’t you think he deserves to know it too?”
“Please,” he begged, “Don’t make me go back. Come with m-me.”
She smiled and Jiang Cheng remembered that Jiang Yanli was inside-out beautiful, “I am sorry, A-Cheng, and thank you.”
Jiang Cheng woke up.
Wei Wuxian had been by his side, of course.
He was by his side when Jiang Cheng’s voice was hoarse and annoying, when his movements were numb and his limbs were useless, when he was so confused that he believed to be eight again and cried for his dogs.
Unfortunately for him, coming back to the world of the living meant that his fever would break once again, and it took the nurses a long time to figure out how to control his body’s natural reactions to the trauma that had been inflicted on him.
“Recovering from that will probably take an entire season,” they said.
Wei Wuxian smiled with relief, patting his brother’s head with a cold towel, “I’m afraid it will.”
Lotus Pier had changed a lot since Wei Wuxian’s childhood, and he was glad to be able to pinpoint exactly where Jiang Cheng had impacted the residence the most.
For example, there weren’t as many children living there anymore, probably because most sect members had died back in the days, but the few ones, born out of those who had survived, ran around freely playing the same games they, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, used to when they were young.
Jiang Cheng had taught them how to.
Jin Ling spoke earnestly about his uncle’s determination to rebuild the sect from ashes to glory without erasing any trace of their traditions in a very as-a-matter-of-fact style, and Wei Wuxian listened to his every word because the kid had surely been dying to show-off his knowledge to anyone who was patient enough to listen.
This kid was an adorable blabbermouth!
The Yunmeng Jiang juniors were a bit stiff and annoying, but most of their hearts relied in good intentions. Wei Wuxian loved teaching these kids something they absolutely needed to know about attempting the impossible, after all, he knew a whole lot about that.
The Yiling Patriarch smiled and turned around. Lan Zhan stood by his side, hands curved in a bowl of warm lotus root and pork rib soup.
“Somebody needs to feed Jiang Wanyin,” he informed seriously, but Wei Wuxian knew he was begging not to be the one to follow through with the task.
Flowers bloomed splendidly, the new garden was a beautiful sight to uphold. They could hear the juniors arguing not so far away. He’d missed it too. So much.
“I guess somebody does.”